In 2021, Trinity College, located in Adelaide, undertook a pilot study to explore how junior secondary students could create a 360° virtual reality learning resource on the science of energy for primary (elementary) school students. This collaborative project was important because there are very few studies on how school students can become VR content creators and use the power of the technology for authentic learning. Authentic learning involves actively demonstrating content mastery for real world applications – in this case using the new media of VR to teach younger peers about the wonders of science.
The team learnt a lot during the study with the main factor impacting the project being time due to curriculum constraints rather than secondary student creativity and engagement. Secondary female students were graded highly on the virtual world content creation task indicating that VR content creation can promote good learning outcomes and interest in emerging educational technology for girls.
Younger students generally found the VRTY platform easy to use and most enjoyed experiencing the 360° learning resource produced by their older peers. While the content knowledge of primary school students did not increase after using the learning resource, the project did provide promising results in shifting the current emphasis away from passive VR consumption in secondary school classrooms to active VR content creation by students, for students.
Southgate, E., Grant, S., Ostrowski, S., Norwood, A., Williams, M. and Tafazoli, D. (2022). School students creating a virtual reality learning resource for children. Proceedings 2022 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces Abstracts and Workshops (VRW).
This article was first published by the Australian Association for Research in Education (29 June, 2020). I’m sharing it here because it highlights some interesting findings from the book.
Virtual Reality in school education: Australia leads the way with groundbreaking research
By Erica Southgate
In 2016, I attended a meeting and fortuitously sat next to the (now retired) principal of Callaghan College who asked me what type of research I’d like to do in schools. At the time a new high-end, highly immersive type of virtual reality (VR) hardware called the Oculus Rift had been released. This type of VR equipment was costly and needed an expensive computer to run but offered entry into amazing worlds. It provided high fidelity environments to be explored through gestural interaction via controllers that allowed you to use your virtual hands to interact with virtual objects and avatars (either other people or computer characters) and navigate in ways that felt incredibly embodied (I am addicted to flying and jumping off clouds in VR).
I made a gentle pitch that I’d like to work with teachers to embed this technology into classrooms to see how it could be used for learning but that I had no idea what we might find. And so began the VR School Study, a collaboration with Callaghan College and later, Dungog High School, both government high schools in NSW, Australia. It became the first research internationally to embed high-end VR in school classrooms.
VR School Study
The VR School Study is ongoing participatory research that aims to explore the use of immersive virtual reality in real classrooms. We focus on how VR can be used to enhance learning, its relationship to curriculum, and its implications for pedagogy. And we examine all the practical, ethical and safety issues that come with integrating emerging technology in classrooms. At the end 2018, the study reached a major milestone with the completion of two major case studies into the use of the technology in secondary schools.
An ‘arduous’ adventure in emerging technology
IN 2018, on the last day of research at Callaghan College, I interviewed two teachers about what it was like to embed an emerging technology in the classroom. The response was, ‘Arduous comes to mind.’ While we did have a laugh, the comment summed up a range of issues encountered during the research.
Space to accommodate VR and safety concerns
Trying to find an available classroom space large enough to accommodate the play areas needed for this VR, which is best used standing and moving around, proved difficult. On one campus we managed to get a room with a small storeroom off it that squeezed in three sets of VR equipment with play areas while at the other we had a larger former lab-preparation room attached to a classroom. Both VR rooms were beyond the immediate supervisory gaze of the teacher and so required me or a student to act as a safety ‘spotter’ to ensure there were no collisions with walls, furniture or peers. Even though there is a built in ‘Guardian System’ (a pop-up virtual cage mapped to the real environment you should stay within), some students became so immersed that they ignored it and needed intervention. Even now with ‘pass through’ cameras in some VR headsets (these allow the user to see the outside environment when they go beyond the Guardian System) some people become so immersed and are interacting with such speed that they can run into objects. Engineered safety solutions are not always enough to maintain safety.
Network and server issues
Getting the tech to work within the confines of the school internet network proved difficult. Game stores that allow multiplayer environments were blocked and internet work-arounds required. Teachers had to set-up individual student accounts which was time-consuming and often update applications in their own time. Our screen capture video, which showed a first-person view of what the student was seeing and doing in a virtual environment, indicated that the technology failed 15% of the time due to network, server and VR tracking drop-out. One of my favourite moments in student humour and resilience was when I heard one boy say to another as they who were fixing a server issue for the third time, “Aren’t you glad you signed up for this?”.
Content mastery and creativity through collaboration
Students were given the highest quality VR and ‘sandbox’ applications, such as Minecraft VR and Tilt Brush which allowed them to create in virtual environments without needing to code. Combined with clever curriculum design they undertook self-directed formative assessment tasks.
In Year 9 science this involved groups researching and developing a model of a body organ in Minecraft VR. The results were an astounding mix of scientific knowledge melded with creative endeavour developed through group problem-solving and collaboration inside and outside of VR.
One group produced an anatomically correct, labelled eyeball which was toured by via a rollercoaster while another built a skyscraper of a brain sitting atop a spinal cord which you flew up to interact with engineered components representing neurons. While in VR, students narrated from memory the parts and function of the brain. Analysis of the screen capture video using a framework adapted from work by Assistant Professor in Learning and Learning Processes the University of Oulu, Jonna Malmberg, indicated that the majority of students used the creative properties of VR to engage in highly collaborative science learning.
At Dungog High School a senior drama class used single-player 3-D sculpting program Tilt Brush, as an infinite virtual design studio to explore symbolism in set design at real life scale and beyond. Students worked in groups to quickly prototype symbolic elements of their directorial vision with peers and the teacher moving in and out of VR to offer feedback. Mistakes were erased or changes made at the press of a button. The virtual studio of Tilt Brush melded with the drama studio to offer students an opportunity to view their design in 3D from the perspective of an audience member, director, designer or actor. All they needed to do was teleport round the virtual environment to do this.
Let’s leave behind the EdTech evangelism
An admission – I’m not a fan of the type of innovation discourse which permeates university managerial-speak and is associated with EdTech (educational technology) evangelism. This type of talk conjures up images of momentous leaps in ways of doing and knowing with the trope of the lone (male, yes it is a gendered) genius leading the charge with their vision of the future.
Innovation is incorrectly depicted as a development shortcut detached from contexts and the years of work that yield incremental improvements and insights, as Stanford University Director, Christian Seelos, and colleague Johanna Mair, argue. They warn against evaluating innovation only on positive outcomes as this can stifle experimentation required to progress an initiative in difficult or unpredictable environments.
This aligns with critical studies in EdTech where research is on the ‘state-of-the-actual’ rather than the ‘state-of-the-art’, as Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Neil Selwyn reminds us. It entails moving away from trying to ‘prove’ a technology works for learning to scrutinizing what actually takes place especially in contexts that are not the ‘model’ well-resourced schools where technologies are often tested.
Teleporting away for now
As I have argued elsewhere, to get the best ethical and educational outcomes with emerging technologies we must carefully incubate these in schools (and not just resource-rich ones) in collaboration with willing teachers so that we can document incremental ‘innovation’ through ‘state-of-the-actual’ reporting. This can be an arduous project but one full of authentic and valuable insights for those willing to go on a research and pedagogical adventure. It’s this type of evidence, not EdTech evangelism, that we need.
For those who want more. In May 2020, I published findings from the study in Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (Routledge). As co-researchers, teachers from Callaghan College and Dungog High School contributed to their respective chapters in this book. The book offers new pedagogical frameworks for understanding how to best use the properties of VR for deeper learning as well as a ‘state-of-the-actual’ account of the ethical, practical and technical aspects of using VR in low-income school communities.
Out of three years of co-research with teachers comes the first book (of many I hope) from the VR School Study. The book, Virtual Reality in Curriculum and Pedagogy: Evidence from Secondary Classrooms (2020 Routledge) provides a brand new pedagogical framework with scaffolds for educators on how to use the technology for deeper learning. Case studies from Callaghan College and Dungog High School are included with a focus on metacognition, collaboration and creativity.
As educators it’s always good to reflect on our top learning experiences, and so here are my top 5 VR School moments to date.
1. When the tech works it’smagic
It’s no easy feat getting the tech to work for this project. It includes networking the Oculus Rifts so that students can collaborate in Minecraft VR and deploying Window 10 version of Minecraft to desktop and laptop computers or Pocket Edition Minecraft to tablets and diverse BYOD mobile devices. The school system has a block on game stores and a work-around was needed. And, then there is the issue of glitches like inexplicable loss of tracking, program crashes or the need to reset Guardian systems that have shifted within the tight space of the VR room. Every time we get through lesson without too many glitches we breathe a sigh of relief.
2. Students are smiling, laughing, dancing and swimming with dolphins in VR
Watching the joy of students in immersive virtual reality is worth the gargantuan effort to address the technical issues. Students in immersive VR are animated as they explore, create, work together and sensation seek (by flying over landscapes or swimming with dolphins). There is spontaneous dancing and singing too. Watching students have serious fun in the science classroom is just brilliant.
3. Students recognise if they are distracted and refocus back on the learning task
Students remark that all the cool things to do in immersive VR can distract them from getting on with the learning task; however, most do direct themselves and each other back to learning and actively negotiate roles and actions to achieve their goal. Understanding this dynamic is important for future educational applications of the technology.
4. Students collaborate to create new ways to demonstrate their understanding of the topic
Students generally like the challenge of interpreting the learning task to demonstrate their understanding of the topic in new and creative ways; in this case the task is building biological models and delivering unique and fun presentation modes such as tour experiences. It isn’t possible to predict how students will creatively use the affordances of immersive VR (like manipulation of scale or embodied spatial navigation), but the end results are often positively surprising (like taking the teacher on a flying tour of an enormous plant cross-section or building a hollow root system that can be traversed by other learners).
5. Some girls start asking questions about technology careers
An unexpected consequence of putting the technology into classrooms is that it has prompted girls express interest in the uses and future of the technology and possible careers in the area. Using immersive technologies for learning may spark career conversations about tech jobs with girls and other groups who are under-represented in the industry. This is worth thinking about.
Over and out for now (I am off to swim with those virtual dolphins) – A/Prof Erica Southgate
Feature image: Screenshot of the dolphins in Minecraft.
Can immersive virtual reality (IVR) be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and digital careers? The VR School Project offers some insights into this interesting question.
Girls and women are significantly under-represented in STEM courses and professions. In Australia, 84 per cent of those with STEM qualifications are male (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016) and women make up only 19% of those enrolled in IT degrees (Zagami, 2016). In the USA, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs (Beede et al., 2011) and make up 18% of those with a computer science degree (Vu, 2017). By age 14, girls are far less likely than boys to aspire to STEM-related careers (Archer, 2013). In lights of these statistics, it is worth asking – Can IVR be used to get girls interested in technology subjects and careers?
From phase 1 of the VR School project, we make the following observations:
Girls were much less likely to have tried IVR than boys– In our sample (22 female, 32 male), girls were almost 3 times as likely to have had NO experience of IVR compared to boys prior to the study. Boys were 3 times more like than girls to have tried IVR at least once or twice.
A minority of girls were very reluctant to try IVR – Four of the twenty two girls explicitly expressed a reluctance to try IVR, some saying it was ‘embarrassing’ to wear a head mounted display (HMD) and/or because they were worried that their classmates were looking at them. These girls requested that the door to the VR room be closed. While we could not shut the door, we did convince the girls to use the equipment which were mainly away from the view of the class. Gender theory can offer some insight into these girl’s behaviour. Constructions of emphasised femininity require girls and women to comply with certain notions of attractiveness, and, let’s face it, HMDs are not especially beautiful. Girls and women are socialised to be aware of who is looking at them, often so they can remain safe. HMDs block this awareness, making girls feel self-conscious and, perhaps, vulnerable.
Boys expressed absolute enthusiasm for IVR – That 79% of boys had experienced IVR prior to the study compared to 36% of girls, points to boys either actively seeking out or being given more opportunities to use new technology. Boys generally volunteered to try out the technology first, while most girls appeared happy to wait. A few girls volunteered to help out assisting other students with equipment and safety in the VR room, but it was mostly boys who took on this role, expressing confidence in their ability despite most being relative newcomers to IVR.
While our sample size is relatively small, these phenomena indicate a need to investigate gendered patterns of IVR technology engagement and interaction more closely. Utilizing social and psychological theories of masculinity and femininity to understand behaviour and opportunity will be important. Having a female researcher on site who demonstrated knowledge about the equipment and immersive experiences was probably helpful, particularly when girls needed encouragement or when they asked about future career opportunities. We believe that IVR does have the potential to switch girls on to technology subjects and careers. However, much more fine-grained research is required to understand and address gender dynamics in classrooms if this is to be fully realized.
Bought to you by a woman who loves VR, Associate Professor Erica Southgate